Musings from the Power List: Gary Hieftje
Some of the finalists from our 2021 Power List share their insights on the analytical chemistry field. Here, Gary tells us about his heroes, offers advice for the next generation, and airs his views on the future of the field.
Lauren Robertson | | Interview
What advice do you have for those following in your footsteps?
My advice would include the following aphorisms:
- A little insecurity is a good thing.
- Assume that everyone else is smarter, bigger, stronger, and faster than you are, and try to compensate.
- Obsession pays off.
- Always shoot for the ideal. Make a list of the ideal characteristics and figure out which ones need attention first
- Never say “no” to a new opportunity. You will find a way to get it done.
- Sleep is highly overrated.
- There is nothing wrong with doing something “just for fun.”
- There’s always a little hell that needs raising.
- Identify heroes and emulate them to the extent possible.
Who have been your heroes/mentors?
I believe it is important for everyone to have “heroes” – people who serve as role models and who provide a “measuring stick” against which one’s own achievements and position can be gauged. The heroes need not be those who are more mature as scientists; indeed, some of my own heroes are former students, colleagues, and contemporaries. Also, the yardstick need not be based on science alone but can be related to such things as character, integrity, consistency, thoroughness, inventiveness, and determination. My science heroes from the past include such luminaries as Richard Feynman and Tomas Hirschfeld but also somewhat lesser-known people such as Jack Frazer, head of the Chemistry Department at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, J. Harvey Kleinheksel, classroom teacher extraordinaire at Hope College, and Stan Smith, originally of Instrumentation Laboratory.
My list of mentors is too long to be cited comprehensively here. However, leading the list has to be Howard Malmstadt, graduate advisor to an amazingly accomplished group of analytical scientists. He provided an atmosphere of openness, self-evaluation, and independence that I have seen matched nowhere else. Other mentors have included students, postdocs, and visitors in my research group. Prominent in my list would also be Dennis Peters of Indiana University, who truly taught me to write effectively, and Daisy Boonstra, my English Teacher at Zeeland High School, Michigan, who began that process.
What is the single biggest challenge facing the field in 2021 – and beyond?
In my opinion, the biggest challenge facing analytical science, indeed science in general, is the intrusion of politics into science, its conduct, and its findings. Although this problem is not new, it has become more serious and dangerous in the past several years. No doubt, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated things. Both sides of many political questions claim to have science on their team, when neither has data to support its position. Preliminary findings are asserted to be absolute truth because “science says so,” and statistics are frequently misunderstood, applied to inadequate data sets, or intentionally distorted. As always, scientists themselves are likely the only ones who can introduce reason into this fray. They must be truthful, thorough, and objective, and resist espousing popular positions despite the lure of notoriety and research funding.